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Eldred founded Eldritch Press in 1995, hoping he could share rare and out-of-print books with a Web audience that otherwise might not be able to see such lost works.
But thanks to the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, signed into law 27 October, Eldred's hobby -- publishing rare books online -- could result in a jail sentence of up to six years.
On Tuesday, Eldred filed a federal lawsuit that seeks to overturn the extension, which extends copyright protection for most works that previously lasted 50 years after the author's death to 70 years.
"This is not an instance of wanting to take money out of authors' pockets," Eldred said. "The only people who will benefit from this act are distant heirs of the author and publishing companies."
Eldred's policy has been to publish classic works immediately after they entered the public domain. He had planned to include 1920s works like A. A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh and Hemingway's Three Stories and Ten Poems on his site when the copyrights expired in upcoming years. Under the Copyright Extension Act, their publication must be delayed until at least 2019.
The law could also have a chilling effect on other online book sites. John Mark Ockerbloom, editor of the On-Line Books Page, decried the extension. He said his site would stick to its policy of listing only online books in the public domain or those reprinted with permission of the author.
"There's a lot of literature that would be very useful to have freely available online for people to read and study," Ockerbloom said. "I fully support the right of authors to be compensated for their work, but there needs to be a balance between financially encouraging artists to create and having works become available to the public domain for widespread use, free from restrictions."
Ockerbloom is concerned that the public interest was ceded to special interests.
"I find it hard to see much protection for authors with an extension which kicks in 75 years after they've died," he said. "From here, it looks like there were other interests at work. Large movie and music companies have an interest in holding on to exclusive rights as long as they can, and the general public stands to lose quite a bit."
Media sources have speculated that the long arm of Disney had a hand in the passage of the law.
The first Mickey Mouse cartoon was set to enter the public domain in 2003, and characters such as Donald Duck and Goofy would have followed shortly after. Regardless of the Byzantine processes that eased its passage, the law can now be overturned only by the US Supreme Court.
Eldred has big guns from the Harvard Law School's Berkman Foundation and Boston's Hale and Dorr law firm on his side. Lawrence Lessig, one of the Harvard attorneys representing Eldred, said that the team of attorneys took the case on a pro bono basis after considering the constitutional and cultural issues involved.
"Getting permission to reprint copyright works is not just a question of money," said Lessig, a national expert on law and cyberspace. "It's also an enormous hassle. Essentially, many works will likely remain invisible if they don't pass into the public domain."
For his part, Eldred hopes simply to provide public access to more works of literature.
"With the changes the Internet has brought, it's no longer possible for a few large publishers to control the printing presses the way they used to," he said. "People have to realize what freedom and access to literature they're losing with this kind of restriction."
"I don't want to let big companies privatize our culture."